Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Mary and Max a film by Adam Elliot

mary and maxAnimation is the kind of medium that tends to divide people. Like Puppetry. Or clowns.

People tend to associate the form with the big and the brash, the noisy and the childlike – cartoon in other words. This quality can be used to brilliant effect. Animation (and puppets for that matter) can say things that simply could not be said by more “realistic” drama or comedy. The Simpsons, South Park, Spitting Image  can all say things more savagely and sometimes more truthfully and daringly than other mediums. Its childish quality can “let animation off the hook”. Animation has more than a touch of the carnivalesque about it – able to reverse the norms, puncture the powerful, undermine the establishment, reverse expectations and ideas.

But whilst I can love all that rowdiness, when it comes to the look of the thing 2D animation simply does not do it for me. And neither does the smooth untextured plastic world of digital animation.

However, stop motion animation can be something else again. Stop Motion covers many things – Vulps Random Irish Folk Furniture was stop motion – using real places and real photography to create a fantasical world of runaway old furniture and magical changing seasons. The slight weirdness of the timing in stop motion can create a charming nostalgic feel  – like old movies and times gone by.

The most familiar form of stop motion animation is claymation. Take any example – from Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run to  A Nightmare Before Christmas and you’ll find an entire created world of textures, surfaces and detail. This is a viseral solid 3-dimensional world of solidity, of realness, of otherness and that is what characterises this kind of animation at its best. This is the world of Mary and Max, a “claymation” stop-motion animation by writer and director Adam Elliot. In look and feel it is not a million miles from Wallace and Gromit, but with a rather more adult and charmingly lugubrious feel. Indeed, this is not really an animation for children, although it employs all that is good about the childlike quality of the medium to explore the more adult themes of loneliness, isolation, social difference, bullying and mental illness.

This makes it sound miserable. It is anything but.

Mary Daisy Dingle is a little girl in Australia. She has a massive pair of spectacles and is teased about a mole on her face. Her mother drinks all the time and doesn’t bother with her daughter. Mary has no friends. One day, out with her mother, she opens up an American telephone directory and picks out a random address. She writes a letter and sends it to a Mr Horowitz, New York. A few weeks later she gets a reply.

Dear Mary Daisy Dinkle,

Thank you for the letter, which I opened and read at 9.1 7pm after my Overeaters Anonymous class.

I am trying to lose weight because my psychiatrist, Dr Bernard Hazelhof, says a healthy body equals a healthy mind. He says my mind is not that healthy.

Your drawing is an interesting visual portrayal of yourself.

I have never met anyone from Australia.

Firstly, I will answer your question.

Unfortunately, in America, babies are not found in cola cans. I asked my mother when I was four and she said they came from eggs laid by rabbis.

If you aren’t Jewish, they’re laid by Catholic nuns.  If you’re an atheist, they’re laid by dirty, lonely prostitutes. So this is where babies come from in America.

I share my home with a fish, some snails, whom I have named after famous scientists…a parakeet called Mr Biscuit and, finally, a cat called Hal. “Hal” is an abbreviation for halitosis, from which he suffers. He followed me home after a gang of children shot his eye out with a beebee gun.

Do you have a pet kangaroo?

When I was born, my father left my mother and me on a kibbutz. She shot herself with my uncle’s gun when I was six.

Do you like chocolate hotdogs?

It is clear at this point that Mr Horowitz is a bit eccentric.  I don’t think it should be too much of a spoiler to say that Max has Aspergers. He, like Mary, finds it hard to understand the strange things humans do. And he, like Mary, is rather isolated and has no friends. Mary’s letter initially stresses him out but they are soon corresponding avidly. He loves to answer her factual questions on the world (“Do sheep shrink when it rains?” and “if a taxi goes backwards, does the driver owe you money?”) although one letter questioning men and women, sex and asking about (the most stressful word of all) love sends Max ( sadly, but hilariously) for an 8 month spell in the mental hospital.

What is nice about the fact that its animation is that we are able to accept the story straightforwardly. If this was a live action movie rather than an animation, the audience may  be plunged into suspicion – questioning Max’s motives, worrying about possible “grooming” or darker inclinations. We’d be wallowing in emotion over Mary’s situation dealing with an unloving alcoholic mother. It could all get rather heavy. But Mary and Max, because it is an animation, is able to get away from such all-pervasive cynical readings to get to the core of what this particular story is about – which is friendship. There are no ulterior motives. Rather like Max and Mary themselves, the animation allows us to see things in a more innocent vein – and perhaps a more human one too.

If Mary is the heart of the story, it is Max who is the most brilliant creation of all. Voiced by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, I cannot read the script without hearing his voice, his pauses and reflections that animate the humour within those lines.

Max finds the world very difficult. He is obsessed with litter and picking up cigarette butts. He wants friends but people’s behaviour confuses him, he runs away from women and has obviously had many a spell in mental institutions. The script is beautiful in the way it trips lightly over these facts and makes no meal of them. It gives as much importance to the apparently trivial detail in their lives – the chocolate bars they like, the fish named after scientists – as the darker adult themes of parental neglect and loneliness. But this is not just naive and childlike, but really gets to the heart of the characters who themselves cope with their lives and their difficulties with other people by replacing difficult emotions with understandable dependable constants in their lives, like Cherry Bars and Noblet collections, or number and facts and unemotional thought experiments.

The script itself is the exact opposite of anything you will be told about how to write a good film script. “Show not Tell” is the big screenplay mantra. The fewer words the better. Let the action do the talking. In Mary and Max, not only is it as much Tell as Show, there is even a very unfashionable narratorial voice in the form of Barry Humphries to do the telling for us! For me, this works brilliantly and it is refreshing to see a script that is unafraid of using devices that have fallen so far from fashion in the mainstream cinema.  Max and Mary don’t say much in real life. They are lonely and isolated with no one to talk to. Not only that, but they don’t get out much. So we hear their voices instead through their letters. Their friendship continues as a constant in both their lives as Mary grows up (voiced now by Toni Collette) and the way they relate subtly changes as Mary sees Max through adult eyes as more of a study subject – leading to the first real conflict in their friendship.

Although generally postiively reviewed, some reviewers have said the film drags a little in the middle or could do with more plot. But this is missing the point. One of the pleasures of Mary and Max is the way huge things happen to these characters but  -rather like the death of Lady Macbeth – they take place offstage. The crashing waves of life are less important to the narrative than the smaller details that make up this very particular friendship. And this is the point  – that whilst emotions and relationships change and rage around Mary and Max bobs through a life of huge coincidence and luck – their friendship remains a constant. This friendship based on facts, curious questions, small details, mad recipe ideas and an constant exchange of interesting chocolate bars. It is as though these small things are the main plot, with all the big stuff strangely less important, ultimately, in the end.

I was going to add a whole section to this review talking about how this film is rather like Vulpes Libris and the fact that I have now been working on this website for over 5 years with people from all over the world, of whom I am hugely fond and who are a constant, low-key comforting presence in my life – and yet, most of whom I’ve only met once or not at all. The big dramas of our lives wash around in the background whilst the foreground provides a comforting constant of talk about reviews and pets and the details of everyday life. But perhaps this one paragraph is enough.

Mary and Max celebrates that particular kind of friendship – something not talked about much in our drama-obsessed society. And I absolutely loved it.

2 comments on “Mary and Max a film by Adam Elliot

  1. Jackie
    February 13, 2013

    Oh this sounds sweet & sad & interesting all at once. I bet I would like it since I can relate to so many aspects of it. Wonder if it’s made it’s way across the Pond yet? Or maybe it’s on DVD already? I need to find out.
    Thanks for bringing this to our attention & for such a compassionate review.

  2. Martine Frampton
    February 14, 2013

    We hd this from love film a while ago and absolutely loved it. It is perfectly pitched and the two characters so sympathetic. Loved your review. thanks. martine

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This entry was posted on February 13, 2013 by in Uncategorized.



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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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